The way it was: Of past and present

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Usually memories have a sweet vanilla scent, some time a burnt caramel flavour. Almost everyone loves to have pudding for desert. Pampering a sweet tooth is fine, once in a while

Time destroys everything — vanity above all. The past is whatever is out of sight. And what is out of sight, as they say is also out of mind. Dimmed memories of what was or has been flicker into life at the finishing line and then expire into hot ash. Soon the ash cools down, washed away partly with tears, but mostly swept into infinity by passing winds. Yet the mind clings onto memories like a forlorn plant dangling from a precipice.

The mighty aspire to bend time. The meek float along with it. Both in the end are engulfed, by the fathomless truth of mundane reality of being and then passing on to an existence beyond shadows, beyond impermanence and hope. Memories provide a wonderful facility to peg one’s feelings to but I wonder if it would be worthwhile to relive life again. In any case even the most cherished moments cannot be wrested from the past.

Things exist in their own perspective of receding time and place. Usually memories have a sweet vanilla scent, some time a burnt caramel flavour. Almost everyone loves to have pudding for desert. Pampering a sweet tooth is fine, once in a while, but relishing deserts cannot be good. The best minds live off the crusty present, rather than repose on sweet and sour memories.

Often out of curiosity I have felt compelled to take a journey to the familiar places of my childhood and youth; some of them are literally at an arm’s distance. I have always suppressed the urge for fear of destroying the vivid images harboured in my heart. We lived for a while at Raiwind, where my father was posted after the Partition in 1947, in a house near the Railway Station. Here are a few extracts from a poem recounting my memories of the place.

‘An avenue of acacia trees, without shadows
Gravel and dust plodded into a path
Without form or definition’
‘... clusters of bilious blossoms
Exuding a sticky sexy odour’
‘A solitary Jaman in a patch of corn
And fragrant roses on the lawn’
‘Torso of a mulberry tree...
Nursing a gaping hole’
‘Life then was so full of Things

The scent of flowers, the taste of common things.’

But this was, ‘far away and long ago.’ Can they be recapitulated by a visit? No! They live in the form of colours and smells, images and feelings ensconced in the heart. They can be partially enlivened by imagination alone.

Talking of memories one of the things, oddly enough, which has come to mind are the Starlings. In those days and for years later, flocks of Tilliars, as they are indigenously known, would annually arrive in spring from nowhere and alight on every branch of berry bearing trees. These starlings, black and purple, the size of our maina, were migratory birds, which flew all the way from Siberia, like the wild ducks, to escape the Siberian winter. Some of the flights comprised thousands. The biggest ones to be seen were at the Changa Manga forest plantation. In the cities, starlings would break up into small groups. Many of them would venture into the very heart of the city and could be seen making quite a noisy racket hopping branches on the peepal trees at the Mall.

It was a great time for hunters. Since shotguns were not allowed in the municipal limits, young lads and grown up vagabonds followed them around, carrying airguns and catapults. It was impressive to watch how some of the street boys could knock a tilliar off the tree with his catapult. While using the catapult one has to be very careful. I have seen amateurs, like myself, while aiming at a target hit their own hand, which is extended forward to hold the catapult while the left hand pulls back the rubber string to let go a stone missile. It is agonising when you get hit on the thumb.

Starling is a pretty little bird, which unlike most other birds is not shy of humans. I have not seen starlings for years now. I wonder why they have stopped coming. I believe some of these birds still visit Peshawar. I hope the people of Peshawar make sure that the starlings continue to fly to their city. What joy they brought to us here. Every spring I miss their constant chatter and never fail to scan branches of trees in the hope that there may be a few perched behind the leaves.

Serious sportsmen consider it improper to shoot tilliars. Unfortunately today frustrated hunters trudging back home with an empty bag seek satisfaction in killing non-sporting birds like doves and pigeons. That is not on. Today besides netting Partridges and Quails, some scoundrels have also started netting our birds of familiar plumage. What follows is an extract from what Aslam, my driver, penned down at my asking, so that it could be shared with others.

“The creator of the cosmos had made the world so beautiful that it baffles human intelligence. The cattle, the birds and the predators carnivorous animals have all been created but man was the supreme creation. In the world hierarchy, man dominates everything else. But sometimes man steps beyond the limits of cruelty. He demonstrates such lack of sensitivity that even an ordinary person like me is forced into thinking, ‘What is man doing?’

“So sire, I am neither a column writer, nor a learned person. I am a common man and I am Mian Ijaz ul Hassan sahib’s driver.... So one day Mian Ijaz ul Hassan sahib, one of his companions Chaudhry Ghulam Kibria sahib and I happened to go to Gujranwala... to buy a pair of electric motors. Mian Sahib and Chaudhry Ghulam Kibria decided to stay back at the office of Mr Riaz Khokhar, the person who had bored the tube wells and sent Riaz sahib and myself to survey the Bazaar and purchase the required motor. While we were proceeding through the Bazaar, probably it was Gujranwala’s Circular Road; I witnessed with my own eyes the ultimate cruelty of man. This man had put up this hoarding like the chicken meat sellers. But instead of chicken the man had strung up small birds. They are called Sehayyrds in local lingo. These birds according to Shariat are not kosher, but this man was conducting business at the cost of the lives of these innocent birds. I cannot express how sorry I felt about him and the people who were buying the birds.

“On venturing ahead in the bazaar, we entered a shop to buy electric motors. While we were inspecting some old motors a man barged in. He had in a bag roughly two hundred starlings — the non-migratory common black spotted ones, which the shopkeepers were buying for eight rupees each. When I feigned interest in the merchandise the shikari informed me that Doves were also available, for twenty two rupees each.

“So sire, shikar (hunting) should be treated as shikar. It should not be made a business. These innocent birds have done us no harm; we should have pity on them. When I recounted all this to Mian Sahib, he was very upset and asked me to write all this down, which I have done at his behest.

“In the end I wish to appeal to the people of Gujranwala that in God’s name they should discourage these commercial hunters from doing business with the lives of these innocent birds. I also appeal to the higher authorities of the Wild Life Department that they should impose a ban on the shikar of these innocent birds and catch these shikaris and award them punishment not too severe but enough to restrain them from committing such a crime.” Signed, Muhammad Aslam, driver.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist